With the death of Jean Vanier (September 10, 1928 – May 7, 2019) the world has lost one of its greatest spiritual guides.
I make this claim with uneasiness, not because I think it false, but because Vanier would not proffer such a claim himself. Humble, selfless and ever patient, he always pointed us in the direction of the other, especially those most marginalized in society, never to himself. If there is true goodness to be celebrated in any human, Vanier has reminded us, it is by becoming the least among us.
Hearing him speak in Toronto many years ago, he addressed the standing ovation he had received from an awed and impressed audience. He respectfully asked that he not be put on a pedestal, for it was never about him. And that is why I maintain we have lost a great spiritual guide of our time.
In a world marred by anger, selfishness, fear, and division, Vanier has shown us that the true path to peace is created by living gently with the forgotten, overlooked people of our society, allowing each person to be themselves in their weakness and gifts. In turn, we let ourselves be loved. Over fifty years ago he forged such a path, living fully in community with people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Today, there are 147 L’Arche (‘arc’) communities found in 35 countries, on five continents around the world.
Aside from his work with L’Arche, Vanier shared generously of his time and his own reflections on the place of faith and love in the world. Through countless public presentations to people from all walks of life and through his dozens of books (some published by Novalis), he helped millions come to a deeper understanding of their own humanity and relationship with God.
Based on the simple message that we are all precious and deserving dignity, Vanier has taught us that life in community with those different from ourselves will help us accept our own weaknesses and limits. The important lesson here is that freedom – a freedom that brings true happiness – comes, by freeing ourselves of desires centred on ourselves or, as Vanier likes to put it, through the sacrament of the poor. Therein lies true greatness.
Simon Appolloni, Associate Publishing Director